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Bread and Circuses

One imagines that the Daily Mail, and a fair number of members of the governing coalition, look back to ancient Rome in longing and admiration: a state that on the one hand was both rich and powerful, and on the other hand had an utterly minimalist conception of its duties – basically, making war and protecting the interests of its rulers. Whenever there was any sign of concern for the mass of the population, it was strictly delimited and controlled: no attempt at poor relief or support for the weakest and most vulnerable in society, but a share in the spoils of empire for a privileged group in the capital – citizens only, no migrants or other foreigners. This morning’s story about an undercover reporter claiming to be unemployed and desperate, and receiving a voucher for a food bank as a result, reminded me for some reason of the story about a senator who’d voted against the corn dole turning up in the queue to claim his share – but almost entirely because it highlights the differences: the ‘scandal’ today is that a charity failed to assume that every person asking it for help is a lying, cheating scrounger, whereas in Rome this would be taken for granted – what else could one expect from the plebs, and why would one give them anything?

I’ve written previously (in my contribution to the Atkins & Osborne collection on Poverty in the Roman World) about the influence of Roman depictions of the plebs, and especially Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’ line, on modern perceptions of the poor as idle spongers. Increasingly, we retain that image while the bread gets ever scarcer, the hoops become ever harder to jump through in order to get it, and the poor and desperate are themselves made into a circus for the entertainment and reassurance of the comfortable classes. The Roman elite regarded all the poor as morally inferior (since they lacked the leisure for self-improvement), and largely ignored them; their modern equivalents share that disdain but feel obliged to disguise it through a tendentious distinction between honest hard-working artisans and grasping benefits cheats. Perhaps the closest equivalent is Cicero’s distinction, at another time of crisis, between the honest plebs who supported him and the odious rabble who supported Catiline; the elite’s obsession with demonising (a part of) the poor reveals how far it feels threatened by the prospect of a change in the order of things.

Link to the Trussell Trust’s Easter Appeal: http://www.justgiving.com/crack-uk-hunger?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socspondesktop&utm_content=crack-uk-hunger&utm_campaign=post-sponsorship-donation-desktop.

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